William Boyd is a shipping heir who hopes to trade tea with China but first must best his British rivals in a race to Boston. Elinor Fair is aboard as the love interest and Junior Coghlan as a kid with a homicidal streak.
Ready, set, FLOAT!
As many of you probably know, Cecil B. DeMille left Paramount on somewhat bitter terms in 1925 and started his own studio. DeMille didn’t like Paramount’s budget limitations or their overriding of his casting decisions. Specifically, he had wanted to cast William Boyd as a lead but was told that his face was too weak for big roles.
Once he was his own boss, DeMille made it a point to prove Paramount wrong and cast Boyd in his very first independent production, The Road to Yesterday. That film didn’t do so well but its follow-up, The Volga Boatman, made Boyd a genuine star. Take that! Weak face indeed!
(I cover Boyd’s introduction to DeMille via a malfunctioning leather swimsuit in my review of The Road to Yesterday and how a fan became a wife in my review of The Volga Boatman.)
Like all studios of the period, DeMille’s outfit ran on inexpensive “programmers” that offered day-to-day infusions of cash and big budget “specials” that would bring in larger profits. At least that was the plan. In fact, DeMille’s distribution system was weak, the programmers were too expensive to make back their budgets and the only specials that succeeded in turning a profit were directed by DeMille himself and that was by no means a guarantee.
While they may have sunk DeMille as an independent filmmaker, the films he produced during this period are some of my favorite silent era productions. Eve’s Leaves, The Fighting Eagle and The Cruise of the Jasper B are delightful (and delightfully bonkers) in their own unique ways and their quality is obvious even in so-so prints.
The Yankee Clipper was a special, handsomely budgeted at over $400,000 (only slightly less than The Road to Yesterday and The Volga Boatman) and directed by Rupert Julian, who is probably best known for helming The Phantom of the Opera. (Lon Chaney didn’t think much of him.) A significant portion of that money was spent on obtaining two genuine 19th century sailing ships, the Bohemia and the Indiana, and making them seaworthy for the picture. The Yankee Clipper grossed $288,000 at the box office, rendering it a solid flop but we’re here to see if the picture lives up to the high standards of its DeMille brethren.
The film opens with two heads of state planning a more aggressive push for trade in China. Queen Victoria (Julia Faye, a DeMille regular who really did resemble the monarch) charges Lord Huntington (Louis Payne) with maintaining British dominance of the tea trade. Huntington sets out for China with his daughter, Lady Jocelyn (Elinor Fair).
Meanwhile, President Zachary Taylor (Harry Holden) wants to break into the Chinese market and sends Hal Winslow (William Boyd), a shipping heir, to China in his spiffy new ship, the Yankee Clipper. Once they have set sail, Winslow discovers a stowaway, Mickey (Junior Coghlan), and makes him the ship’s mascot.
Jocelyn has gone to China to meet her fiancé, Paul de Vigny (John Miljan), but he is already involved with Wing Toy (Sally Rand). Paul means to marry Jocelyn for her money and keep Wing Toy as his mistress. His plans are imperiled when Winslow shows up and falls head over heels for Jocelyn and she for him because, come on, it’s William Boyd. Rawr.
Mickey is appalled because he is a he-man woman-hater living in an era before the internet so he can’t yell at ladies online about video games. Lacking any other outlet, he does his best to ruin Winslow’s romance but it is clear that there is an Anglo-American alliance in the making, nudge nudge wink wink.
A Chinese tea merchant, the biggest in the area, proposes a test to see who is worthy of carrying his goods: the American and British ships will set sail for Boston and the first one to arrive will win the tea contract. The loser must forfeit both a hot cuppa and his ship.
Just before the race is set to start, Winslow catches Paul necking with Wing Toy. He is ready to depart without saying a word when Jocelyn shows up on the deck of the Yankee Clipper with Paul in tow. She wants to wish him farewell and Paul really wants to make sure that Winslow doesn’t spill what he knows.
Will Captain Winslow tell Lady Jocelyn what he has seen? Nope! Instead he pulls the “I know what’s best because I love you, now dump your fiancé!” routine without explaining that Paul is a cheating cheater, which goes down about as well as you can imagine. The starting cannon fires and so Winslow decides he has only one course of action: he locks Jocelyn in his cabin and tosses Paul in the hold.
Okay, so rather than say those three little words (“Paul’s a hustler!”) he… kidnaps her? And her fiancé? Ooo, this is so annoying! I mean, I realize that it’s awkward to tell someone that their intended has a lover on the side but I fail to see why the option is either tell all or kidnap and nothing else. If he’s worried that tattling on Fiancé Jerkface will make him look bad, does he seriously think that abduction will make him look better? People tend to not like being kidnapped. It makes them sad. And now Winslow and Jocelyn are practically reenacting the Battle of Bunker Hill on the poop deck.
I am afraid what we have here is a standard Roger Ebert Idiot Plot. Ebert coined the term in the 80s and it is simply: Any plot containing problems that would be solved instantly if all of the characters were not idiots.
If I were writing the film, I would have had Lady Jocelyn walk in on her fiancé, get really angry, try to break off the engagement but meet resistance from her father and then stow away onboard Captain Winslow’s ship. It would have had the same result (lovers together on the ship plus tension) but would have given Jocelyn agency and not made Winslow out to be a dodo. It also would have been very much in the style of the House of DeMille because the films he produced at this time featured smart, assertive and truly heroic heroines.
Anyway, the race proceeds with all the expected obstacles (storms, mutiny, scummy sailors, water water everywhere nor any drop to drink) and with Paul trying his best to make Winslow look like a dope, which Winslow makes pretty easy, I must say.
Will the Yankee Clipper defeat its British rival and steal the tea right out of their cups? Will Winslow stop committing felonies? Watch The Yankee Clipper to find out!
In the end, The Yankee Clipper is good but it feels unfinished somehow, like there needed to be just one more element in the mix. Part of the problem is that the mutiny overshadows the race and makes the central plot element seem incidental by comparison. (In contrast, First National’s The Sea Hawk kept its hero’s quest to prove his innocence front and center and Paramount’s Old Ironsides was pirate-centric throughout.) I wish there had been more scenes to do with the sailing ship race and less to do with the romance plot.
These other hit seafaring films were clearly on the minds of the writers and crew of The Yankee Clipper. (Old Ironsides particularly, in all likelihood, given that DeMille wanted to prove himself to his old Paramount colleagues.) The idea was a solid one and just a few months after The Yankee Clipper tanked, Columbia would prove itself worthy of the big leagues with The Blood Ship, a nautical adventure starring everyone’s favorite seadog, Hobart Bosworth. (It should be noted that The Blood Ship went for a more gory approach and was considered fairly shockingly violent at the time, which may have contributed to its success.)
While distribution woes were certainly a factor in The Yankee Clipper’s low box office takings, there were other problems at play. The romance is particularly feeble because Jocelyn is a pretty smart character. Once her fiancé is exposed as a worm, she accepts it and dumps him. It’s not like she’s the Stand By Your Man type who won’t hear a word spoken against him; she’s more than ready to listen if there’s evidence. So, the entire kidnapping plot was completely unnecessary. All Winslow had to say was some variation of, “He has dishonored you by carrying on with another woman. You will have to ask him for details.” and the entire romantic conflict would have been resolved. Instead, Winslow picks up the Idiot Ball and runs hell for leather to the goalpost.
Establishing the British captain as a rival would have helped increase the suspense of the race. As it stands, we are occasionally reminded that the race is on via intertitles but we are rarely shown anything off the Yankee Clipper. Showing the rival ship just ahead and slipping away time and again would have done a lot to build suspense.
It’s a shame because many elements of the film do work extremely well. The film was expensive and the money shows on the screen. The ship is absolutely gorgeous, the miniature work is excellent and the typhoon scene is justly praised as one of the finest sequences in the picture. And, like all productions of the DeMille studio, The Yankee Clipper is just slightly bonkers. I mean, a ten-year-old kid directly kills one baddie and points vengeful sailors in the direction of the second whilst randomly jabbing the leading lady with a sail needle. I certainly hope Winslow and Jocelyn plan to get Mickey professional help.
William Boyd is as charming as ever, back in heroic mode after a stint as the resident dude-in-distress in Eve’s Leaves. Boyd was made for light adventure (his later career as Hopalong Cassidy certainly proves that) and he is given plenty of heroic moments. Junior Coghlan is cute even if his character is fairly disturbing and Elinor Fair does what she can with the material given her.
The direction is quite capable, certainly better than The Phantom of the Opera, and makes the most of the real ship with sweeping shots of the sails, overhead shots of the sailors on deck and lots of seawater. This is the great advantage of a real ship instead of a partial set or a CGI vessel: the camera is free to sweep around and showcase the beautiful lines of the vessel. Plus, it just feels more solid and real because it was. (The cast and crew actually lived on board for three weeks during filming.)
Junior Coghlan recalled that Rupert Julian was a strange man who was fixated with the notion that he looked like Kaiser Wilhelm. (Julian did indeed play Wilhelm in The Kaiser, The Beast of Berlin in 1918.) Coghlan also recalled that Julian’s wife, Elsie Jane Wilson, accompanied him on set throughout the filming. Wilson had been a director at Universal with eleven credited titles under her belt and there has been speculation that she helped Julian with The Phantom of the Opera. Could she have been offering advice here as well?
While the film looks great, it does seem a bit wasteful to purchase two ships for the picture when only one is ever shown onscreen at a time and the other is off in the distance. I actually thought that the production had used a miniature or had reused the main clipper for the British vessel and was quite surprised that they had invested in an entire second ship. While I am all for big budgets, this does demonstrate the inability to implement common sense cost cutting measures that could have saved the DeMille independent venture.
I mean, if you’re going to have two ships, get the most out of them. I’m talking battles, boardings, all the stuff that we like in a sea adventure. Or make better use of its Chinese setting. Again, the sets look expensive but not much is ever really done with them.
By the way, I would rate The Yankee Clipper a little above average for Hollywood productions of its time in its portrayal of Chinese people. (That’s not a high bar.) The tea merchant is treated as an intelligent character and the film seems to have better grasp of trade with China than, say, 2010’s Alice in Wonderland a.k.a. The Opium Wars Are a Fun and Feminist Throwaway Line, Whee! I do appreciate that some Asian characters are played by Asian actors (and, um, Sally Rand), which is more than Ridley Scott generally manages but, alas, there are also scenes of muggings, street mobs and the general Life Among the Primitives feel is pretty skeevy.
And this is the point where someone usually proclaims that I need to look at context, everyone was racist then, that’s just how it was, why are people so offended by things these days etc. etc. etc. But this is also the point where I produce my trusty 1916 Moving Picture World op-ed written by Chinese-American moviegoer and university student T.L. Li complaining about the stereotypes and negativity aimed at Chinese people in Hollywood films. A few choice selections:
“Frequency and monotony (of negative portrayals) profoundly mislead the American public to think that such are all the Chinese who compose the Chinese nation. This is a misconception. Dr. Edward, president of the Harvard Medical College in Shanghai. China, in an address to a Chinese student club, of which the writer was then a member, remarked that it would be just as great a mistake for the Chinese to exemplify the American people by what they have seen of the American tramps, drunkards, rascals, and what not in Shanghai, as for the American to pick up a few of the meanest Chinese laundry-men in New York or Boston as samples of the Chinese people. It is, therefore, clear that no people has the right to denounce another people simply on the ground that a few individuals of the latter do not behave themselves
(These film portrayals) do not educate the people, because they are evil suggestions, which ought to be eliminated as much as possible for the sake of social morality. In the second place, they do not really afford pleasure or recreation, because they are, as a rule, horrible, disagreeable, unpleasant and uninteresting. On the other hand, as a result of their influence, they produce and intensify among the Chinese inhabitants and Americans who live side by side, in the same society, racial prejudice, friction, disdain and antipathy, which benefit no American, but injure the Chinese as to their feeling and reputation.”
(Casually paints nails.) Anything to add? I didn’t think so. Enjoy your context, sugar muffin?
Look, there is absolutely nothing wrong with liking a movie that contains problematic content (as stated above, I love Eve’s Leaves) so long as you don’t love it BECAUSE of the problematic content. But there is also absolutely nothing wrong with discussing that problematic content. What I object to is the inevitable squeaking that basically comes down to “You’re not allowed to talk about anything that makes me feel uncomfortable!” Too bad, we’re talking about it.
In conclusion, The Yankee Clipper is absolutely stunning, the cast is game and the nautical scenes are among the very best. Unfortunately, it is done in by a silly screenplay, a lack of big stakes for its characters and the fact that it’s not quite nutty enough for kitsch. One more screenplay draft might have saved it but it’s still worth a look, particularly for fans of seafaring adventure and/or William Boyd. Like I said, rawr.
Where can I see it?
A restored version of The Yankee Clipper has been released on DVD by Flicker Alley as part of their Under Full Sail set. There are bargain editions of the picture out there but they don’t have the picture quality or the excellent organ score (courtesy of Dennis James) that make the Flicker Alley release so good.
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